The day the world ends, Emma's been picking food up off the floor for hours. The Okay Corral lets kids eat free on Tuesdays, so Emma's had the carpet sweeper out all afternoon. She's got a four-top camping near the front window, and she glares icy death at them; they're keeping her from her break before the second shift in this double.
A Pirate's Life is heading into the bridge with some lyrics Eric wrote about choices and following dreams. Wide open west, my ass, Emma thinks. More like he and the guys in his band wanted to pretend they could get away from everything that sucked about Baltimore, that Reno would be so much better. Same shitty restaurant jobs without the benefit of an ocean, if you ask her.
The music stops when the screaming starts; Emma tastes gravel and copper. Over the ringing in her ears, she hears a keening from that hated table by the window. She tries wiping at her eyes, pulls away a hand with more blood on it than dust. When she can see again, she wishes she couldn't; the picture window's embedded in the lingering customers. Not exactly how she wanted her section to empty out.
Beyond the broken shards still in the window's frame, the sky is an ominous grey. Something from the morning news chitters in the back of her brain, but all she can remember is the plastic announcer saying that the US Geological Something or Other doesn't want anyone to worry. Yeah, right.
It's too quiet on the stage. Blood pounds in Emma's temples as she turns. Yuri's legs are sticking out from under his drum kit, and Sven's holding Eric's limp form. He turns to her and says something that fades into the cacophony; all she can focus on is her husband's curly head, half-buried in rubble.
Later she remembers flashes of Yuri pulling her away, of Sven trying to call 911 from the bar's landline, of Eric's blood on her uniform. Of realizing she's a widow before she's thirty. Of knowing that she was angry at him right before. But that's later. Now, they run.
They drive into an expanse of grey and it swallows them whole. Twisted vegetation on the side of the road is painted in ash, as if the world's gone monochromatic. The plume behind the truck signals their presence, but there's nobody to see them. The cars they're passing look jettisoned, doors ajar and possessions strewn on the highway. Some hold people, but the people are very still.
Emma clears her throat a few times before she tries talking. "Your check engine light just came on."
"Electric cooling fan has a busted sensor," Yuri explains. "Piece of shit."
"And is there always smoke coming from the engine?" Sven asks. Emma didn't see it until he said something, since there's so much dust floating out there, but he's right.
"Chyort voz'mi!" Yuri curses in Russian as he pulls over and hops out. Wracked with coughs, he staggers before pulling the hood open. Emma slips out of the truck through the open driver's-side door, bringing Yuri one of the masks Sven grabbed on his way out of the restaurant.
"Thanks," Yuri wheezes, covering his mouth and nose, then coughing again.
Gritty ash gusts over them, and Emma adjusts her goggles. They're a relic of industrial dance nights back home in Maryland. A Pirate's Life isn't close to her idea of good music: she used to say the stompier, the better. The only sounds out here are the howl of the wind and the ominous stutter of the civil defense siren in This Is Not A Drill mode.
Yuri pushes his sunglasses atop his head and looks at his engine, then drops them to the bridge of his nose. "Hopeless."
Sven is right behind Emma, medical mask and welding goggles making him look all sci-fi. "Look on the bright side, man. Car-shopping on the edge of the highway doesn't require a credit check."
Despite everything, Emma almost smiles. "Lots of lemon potential and low selection, though."
"How about a Crown Vic?" Yuri sweeps a sleeve over the windshield of an enormous boat of a car only halfway into the ditch.
"Sweet! We can be 70s TV show cops!" Sven tries the driver's door, and it opens with a weighty creak, offering a cavernous interior and, mercifully, no bodies.
Yuri ducks under the dash and pulls on some wires. Emma shifts from foot to foot; she doesn't want to remember the cracked vinyl and peeling paint and utter perfection of Eric's old Geo Metro. The engine rumbles to life and drowns out her regrets.
Emma hunts up and down the dial, but the car's radio isn't picking up anything. So much for all those Wednesday Alerts; tuning in for disaster info is a great suggestion, but not so helpful when the info's not broadcasting.
Sven finds a smartphone in the glove compartment, but no towers seem to be operational. (Not that any of them have ever been able to get a cellphone, but they've seen TV, and it looks like nobody can hear them now.)
There's a gas station on the side of the highway with no lights, but a hand-lettered sign assures them it's open. Guy with a ham radio's running things inside. Emma isn't so sure he actually works there, but he's willing to trade a tank of gas for a dozen of those masks. Good thing the restaurant stocked up back during the swine flu scare.
Better yet, this guy's got news. Turns out 911 wasn't picking up back at the bar because this hit everybody within about 600 miles of Yellowstone, including emergency dispatchers. The National Guard is supposedly somewhere, but that somewhere isn't anywhere in sight.
Flaky ash overlays every surface, including the passenger-side door handle when Emma comes back from the gas station bathroom, running tongue behind teeth and trying to untaste the flavor of rock dust. She climbs in over Sven and settles between them as Yuri starts driving again, and tells them what she's learned.
"It's all my fault," says Sven in a voice verging on panic. "The side of the bus said to visit scenic Reno. Nothing about how the mountains in the picture might attack!"
Yuri drapes an arm over Emma, pats Sven's shoulder. "Reno's a bust, man, but it's not your fault. Hell, remember, I wanted to go camping in Yellowstone next week! We could all be toast."
"And instead Yellowstone comes to us," Emma says flatly. "Eric's dead, guys. Regret isn't going to change that."
Trunk's full of instruments. The rest of the possessions they could pull out the wreckage of their rent-by-the-week motel room are in the back seat. She grabs Eric's pirate hat out of a laundry basket full of odds and ends and inhales the scent of his shampoo.
A blasted sign for I-80 is twisted and torn from its moorings. That highway brought them here, criss-crossing the bulk of the continent. Emma wants to get on it and go home, but by all reports the middle of the country's impassable.
The sky's on fire and the ground's frozen. They've been driving for a day and a half, slow enough to keep the Crown Vic's belt-driven fan from clogging with too much ash. Nylon stockings over the air intake, the ham radio guy advised. Emma didn't even ask his name.
"I'm worried about my parents," Emma says. "East coast is supposed to be flooding, and they live awfully close to the water."
"Remember, they have pumps in the basement," offers Yuri. "When we used to practice there I was always hitting one with my drumsticks."
"Those post-war city houses are solid," Sven adds. "We'll get there and they'll be fine."
Emma doesn't believe them, not really, but she has little choice. North and west around the worst of it's about the only way to go. The ash cloud extends to the Gulf, to the Mississippi, maybe beyond.
Takes a week to make it to the Mississippi. Up to the border (which is closed, and no wonder), through flat lands and lake country (now clogged with debris), through some of the worst Emma's ever seen of humanity (and she used to work during the crusty clam specials).
Apocalypse in slow motion means change. No more just-in-time delivery. No more gas stations. No more Walmart (because those were the first places looted). No more credit cards. Barter works okay when they run into people on the road, but mostly it's siphoning and salvage. Hungry eyes turn into violent fists a couple of times.
After the latest scuffle, Yuri's coughing blood, and way too much for these injuries. With a frisson of horror, Emma realizes he's been coughing since Reno.
"They say it's like inhaling glass," he says. "I didn't want to worry you guys."
They give him the funeral they didn't have time to give Eric. Sven wants to set a boat on fire and float it down the river, but Emma convinces him that he's not a real Viking, they don't have a boat, and if they did, they'd definitely have better things to do with it than set it on fire.
They do light a pyre, though. Ground's frozen, after all. The sun hasn't blessed much of anything, lately.
Far as Emma can tell, the volcano did something to the atmosphere. Nothing much is working. Low-powered radio hops from settlement to settlement, but the government (such as it is) doesn't seem to be making communication as much of a priority as the whole "no more photosynthesis" thing.
A week since Yuri's funeral, and they're past the rioting of Chicago and into the forests of Pennsylvania. Almost home. Emma's taking her turn at the wheel. Sven's finally awake, and she finds herself talking more than she's talked since Reno.
"We used to fight about the stupidest stuff. Like, I had a Banana Republic card I defaulted on. I mean, ages before we even met. But you know, it used to follow you around."
She blinks to banish the highway hypnosis, looks at Sven. He nods, his eyes far away. She can tell when he's dreaming of the past, of when they thought they could make it.
"And he wanted a dog. Like he'd ever have taken care of a dog!"
Sven says, "You'd have taken care of the dog."
He angles towards her, smiling. She's got her left hand draped over the wheel and her right on the seat at her side; his knee brushes it, and she doesn't pull away.
"I was mad at him. Right before--before, I was thinking how Reno was a mistake," Emma says. "Eric wanted us to have the space for a family, but he never really wanted to know what I wanted. And as if I'd move over 2500 miles away and then get pregnant without my mom or anyone to help."
"You had us." Sven's not even a little sarcastic, either. How a guy can be this sincere is anyone's guess.
Emma sniffs. "We had crappy Ikea furniture and unpaid bills."
"And go-nowhere gigs." Sven slides a hand into hers. "I was there, remember?"
Emma squeezes his hand. "It's almost like everything we did then was for other people, like we were just part of the scenery in their lives. Renfest, the catering gigs, the restaurants..."
Sven puts on a bad impression of the Chesapeake Crab Shack's jingle. "Mass-produced heart attacks on a plate, coming right up!"
They both dissolve into laughter, which echoes through the Crown Vic, surprising Emma; it's fragile but real. The highway stretching out before them looks brighter than the one behind.
Third spring since the caldera went, and the mimeographed almanac Emma picked up with the seed corn at the country store says that the warming temperatures will make this year better for planting. Maryland's soil is fertile, and there may even be sun this year. So they say.
Her mom is trying out a greenhouse with the neighbors. Dad would have had a good feeling about the soil. He always loved working outside, and Emma feels close to him when she gardens.
She's pretty sure there are tools -- cultivator, hoe, spade, what have you -- in the back of the shed. She throws the doors open wide and rummages about, setting aside a broken hoe before finding something unexpected.
When Sven comes back with the lambs, Emma is cross-legged on the ground plucking at Eric's old acoustic. She avoids a broken string in the middle and manages to coax some off-key notes out of it. The feel of steel vibrating under her fingers grounds her like the first time she worked the earth with her hands.
"Let's restring that," says Sven. He reaches down, takes the guitar in one hand and helps her to her feet with the other.
Back in the cabin, he slides his bass out of its leather case, strums low notes that send a thrill through her. The electronic music she used to love is long gone, but she'd never had the software to make it her own. New possibilities in this new world.
Warm, solid hands on hers, placing her fingers in the right alignment, and Emma feels the weight of all they've lost, of all they still have. Through a sudden blur, Sven's smile reflects hers.